Incidents of trespass can cause crippling delays, cost the railway millions, and even claim lives, bringing misery to families of victims and for the railway employees involved. Convincing youngsters of the dangers of trespassing on the railway is a matter of urgency. STEFANIE FOSTER reports
“I was 14 and we were at the tracks playing a game of tag. I was running along the top of a train and slipped.
“My instinct was to grab the first thing that came to hand - the overhead wire. It blew me clean off the train and I landed on my head in the gravel. I’d just received an electric shock of 25,000 volts.
“The electricity entered the right side of my body and came out of my right foot. If it had gone through my left side, it would have struck my heart and stopped it beating.”
Tom Crosby trespassed on the railway and came away with harrowing injuries. He was in a coma for four days, having been burnt from head to toe.
“After two weeks, I was finally able to go to the toilet by myself. That was also the first time I saw my face in the mirror. As soon as I saw myself, I started screaming.
“There was no skin on my face at all - it was like I’d been peeled and turned inside out. It was red raw, with veins popping out. My head had swollen up like a balloon, and it looked like my skeleton was showing through.”
Crosby is now an adult and uses his experience to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of playing on the railway, an initiative that won him RAIL’s National Rail Award for Outstanding Personal Contribution in 2016.
However, despite dangers that seem obvious to those of us in the railway, Network Rail has uncovered some staggering statistics revealing just how little understanding youngsters have of the risks they take when they trespass.
Just under a third don’t believe that they risk severe burns as a result of electrocution by the overhead wires; 15% think it’s safe to walk on the railway provided they’ve checked the timetable first; and almost a fifth think that they can retrieve a dropped phone from the tracks safely provided they leave straight afterwards.
The result of those beliefs is that the number of youngsters risking their lives on the railway has increased by almost 80% in the past five years. In just the last 12 months, seven under-18s have died and 48 have suffered life-changing injuries.
While those statistics are shocking in themselves, and clearly raise an issue about safeguarding children on our railway, there is another side to trespass that also has a serious impact on the railway itself.
According to the British Transport Police (BTP), trespass is the single biggest cause of external-related disruption to the network.
Incidents of trespass, the associated delay minutes and subsequent Schedule 8 payments have increased each year since 2014-15. Last year, trespass increased on the network by 15% on the previous year, clocking up just under 10,000 incidents which resulted in delays. Delay minutes caused by trespass increased by 22%, meaning that the cost of Schedule 8 payments last year reached £55 million. The projected cost of delay minutes from trespass during Control Period 6 (2019-24) is a whopping £360m.
Those are the kind of sums that could be used to build new stations or upgrade our ageing network. Instead, an issue over which the railway has very little direct control is bleeding money and costing lives.
And there’s a further overlooked aspect to trespass - how a train driver feels when they’ve watched a child heave themselves onto the platform, seconds before their life could have been snuffed out by a 125mph train. A narrow miss such as this leaves its mark on a driver.
Dave is a driver whose story has been recorded to raise awareness of the effects trespass has on railway staff (see the video link in the Further Information panel). Dave recalls the incident:
“It was just a normal day. I set off from Birmingham International towards Birmingham New Street and I was approaching Adderley Park. I was doing 100mph, approaching the station, and I noticed a girl and a friend who were a bit close to the platform edge.
“The next thing I saw was the girl stood in the rails with her back to me. Panic and fear kicks in. If somebody is stood in front of you, you’re just waiting for the impact. The only thing I can do is what I’m trained to do, which is apply the emergency brake and sound the horn constantly. The rest is down to pure luck, whether she reacts to that or whether she doesn’t.
“You pick up so many little details. I was able to tell that she had dark clothes on, blonde hair, she had like a pinkish bag on the platform and it seemed like an eternity before she was dragged to safety. But it was only a matter of seconds. I missed her by inches. The girl concerned was extremely lucky, that’s all I can say.
“After the shock, you’re sat at home and your next feeling is anger. What’s she done that to me for? Halfway through the night, it will come to you in a dream and you wake up with a shout or a scream…
“It takes a long time. Some will ask for counselling. In my particular instance, I just talked to my family, my wife mainly, and I burdened her, which isn’t fair.
“I’m glad that in my 26 years of driving, I’ve only had three near misses and I’ve never killed anybody. I’ve got six years left - that’s a lot of mileage that I’m going to put in and hopefully I won’t kill anybody, provided people get educated. All I can say to them is ‘don’t do it. Don’t even think about going on the tracks. Stay away’.”
The consequence for drivers in these circumstances is that they can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of what they’ve seen. PTSD causes physiological changes in the brain that means an individual struggles to process traumatic events. It can affect everything from memory and concentration to sleep and social reactions.
Unfortunately, the risks of developing this condition are high on the railway, because of the potential for witnessing accidents, injuries and near misses, as well as the increasing possibility of verbal or physical abuse from angry passengers.
RSSB recently surveyed 700 frontline staff, and found that nearly 95% had experienced workplace abuse in the past year alone. Add this to the 297 members of the public who died on the railway in 2017-18 as a result of suicide, trespass and the like, and the chances of witnessing a traumatic event are high.
Mental Wellbeing Specialist for RSSB Michelle O’Sullivan explains: “Everyone will respond to a traumatic experience differently. For some, returning to work shortly after the incident may feel best - for others, more time and targeted support may be needed. With access to the right treatment and support, the majority will recover and be able to return to work. PTSD is a treatable condition, and there are steps companies can take to ensure cases can be detected and remedied sensitively.”
RSSB has released a new film aiming to help companies better look after their people. It follows the experiences of train driver Michael Setchell and Mick Carney, a member of station staff, both of whom developed PTSD following traumatic events at work (see video link in the Further Information panel).
So, a single trespass incident can have far-reaching consequences - for family members of a victim, for the train driver and other rail staff, for the wider railway’s performance, and therefore also to the paying passenger whose train has been delayed or cancelled.
Ian Prosser, Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Railway Safety at the Office of Rail and Road, wants to see the industry do more to prevent trespass. He tells RAIL that most trespass incidents occur within about 100 metres of a station, meaning that the ‘hotspots’ are well-known. He believes there are some real opportunities to improve some of the infrastructure, the way we man stations, and the use of technology to try to address the problem.
“There are a lot of societal issues associated with trespass,” he says. “But this is not just a safety issue, because of the impact on performance. If you have a poor-performing railway, you end up with more safety risk. It is specific to certain areas, some of which are deprived areas, but that doesn’t mean the industry can’t do more. This is about prevention rather than prosecution, but we will - and do - act where we need to.”
Prosser feels that the solution is real joined-up working between the BTP, Network Rail and the wider industry.
Just last month, a new campaign was launched to coincide with the start of the school summer holidays, featuring a video aimed mainly at boys aged between 11 and 18.
Spearheaded by Network Rail, the idea was to understand why youngsters trespass. Statistics can tell you who does it, and where and when they do it, but can’t provide vital causal information.
NR held a number of focus groups, ran surveys and spoke to experts at University College London, which has published extensive research on the teenage brain. This combined insight was then used to narrow down the campaign’s messaging and creative content, to ensure that it spoke to the target audience in a relatable way.
The You vs Train campaign tells the story of Tom Hubbard, a young boy who suffered life-changing injuries in 2014 when he was electrocuted by the overhead wires, suffering 57% burns to his body.
Hubbard had ventured onto the railway to retrieve a football, and climbed onto an out-of-service train just for a bit of fun. Although he didn’t touch the overhead power cables, he was struck by 25,000 volts when the electricity jumped from the cables into his body. He and his family agreed to share the story to help increase awareness about the dangers of the railway.
With a campaign such as this, reaching your target audience is vital. So how is the campaign being shared?
“Social media naturally plays a central role in reaching the primary target audience,” NR spokesman Lexie Jenkins tells RAIL.
“Instagram and Snapchat are key platforms based on the user data, and allow us to be highly targeted in our posts and messaging. We didn’t only use age and gender demographics, but are also targeting regional hotspots around the country, where there are more reported incidents of trespassing.
“We are using Facebook as a primary channel for reaching out to parents, and encouraging them to talk to their children about the dangers of going on the railway.
“Twitter has also been a key channel for organic amplification of the campaign, utilising both Network Rail’s and the British Transport Police’s own channels to drive awareness. A number of high-profile celebrity supporters have shared posts and spoken about the campaign on social media, which helps drive support.”
Jenkins says there has also been launch coverage of the campaign on a number of television and radio stations, while the campaign film has been shown in cinemas in the key regional hotspots during the school summer holidays.
Work is also under way on a new schools engagement programme involving NR, BTP and train operating companies, intended to teach thousands of children about railway safety. One film released by Network Rail recently had already been seen by more than one million people in just three weeks.
18 was produced as part of the Midland Main Line upgrade, to raise awareness of the increased dangers of trespassing on the railway with wires going up. Just like You vs Train, it was important that this film was relevant to its target audience, so NR carried out a series of safety workshops in Northamptonshire schools involving more than 260 pupils aged 11-16. The students were tasked with writing scripts for the video, and the winning script became the basis of the film.
The 30-minute short film is incredibly hard-hitting. It depicts a group of friends leading normal teenage lives, seemingly safely, until one of them is killed by the overhead lines. It’s an intensely powerful story of how easy it is to be lulled into a false sense of security on the railway, little realising how close you are to being in mortal danger.
BTP Chief Constable Paul Crowther OBE is determined to tackle trespass on an industry-wide basis, and is calling for the creation of a National Trespass Taskforce - akin to the Metal Theft Taskforce that very quickly led to a reduction in metal theft.
Crowther wrote in RailReview Q2-2018 (available from www.railreview.com) of his belief that there is a need for a multi-agency Fusion Unit to develop an impact assessment for trespass. It would enable the railway to accurately forecast what the impact will be in CP6 if the current trend continues, covering the cost, the level of disruption and delay, and the impact on passenger confidence.
With metal theft, the taskforce entailed a combination of enforcement, education, engineering and enabling (known as the ‘4E’ approach), and conducted an economic assessment to show that metal theft was costing the UK £750m a year - the sort of figure that compels politicians and companies to start taking action.
Crowther is keen to understand what the equivalent taskforce might look like for trespass. He mentions the potential to learn from other industries and potentially join forces where there are commonalities, the National Grid being a particular example.
National Grid does not publish trespass statistics, as (for the most part) trespass is not on National Grid property. As the transmission owner, any trespass would be more likely on the distribution company’s land (where the visible pylons are).
However, trespass is still an issue that National Grid has to contend with, mainly from what it deems as ‘recreational purposes’ such as base jumping, drug use and urban exploration, or by individuals looking to steal metal cables.
There have been several incidents in the energy sector over recent years where trespassers have sustained serious injuries or even died in their attempts to steal copper earth cable. As a result, National Grid works closely with the BTP on a strategic response working group to tackle metal theft, and thereby reduce trespass.
National Grid Director of UK Corporate Affairs Thom Thorp tells RAIL: “We work proactively with communities to inform them of the dangers of trespassing or playing with our equipment, and are very supportive of best practice sharing between industries.”
Some £5m of funding was needed to set up the National Metal Theft Taskforce, and Crowther says this “pretty much eradicated the problem”. He wonders what just a fraction of the £55m value of Schedule 8 payments in 2017-18 would do to set up something similar for trespass.
He wrote in RailReview: “I am personally committed to doing something about this. I’m committed to devoting my personal time to it. I would welcome the input of others who can turn this vision into a reality, so that we get to grips with the perennial problem of disruption caused by trespass, but more importantly to ensure that next year 21 children do not die on the railway. Are you up for the challenge?”
What makes overhead lines so dangerous?
Lok at some of the comments made on social media about the You vs Train campaign, and there are a few pointing out that 25,000 volts alone is not what will kill you. The average police taser delivers 50,000 volts and only causes temporary impairment, so it can’t just be down to voltage.
The danger of overhead lines comes from a combination of that high voltage and high current (up to several thousand amps, compared with 15 in a household plug socket).
When you consider that the overhead lines need to provide sufficient power for a 400-ton train to run at 125mph, it’s clear that the current must be high. The third rail only has 750V, and yet can still be lethal because of the high current required to accelerate a train.
The secondary danger comes from the ability of the electricity to ‘jump’ across a gap. In extreme conditions, 25,000 volts can jump up to three metres. And when it surges through the air, it creates enough heat to burn skin and ignite clothing.
RAIL’s Philip Haigh has a good analogy for this: “Think of voltage as similar to pressure and current as flow. If you stand in front of a garden hose you’ll get wet, but not harmed. Stand in front of a firefighter’s hose and you’ll get knocked over. The firefighter’s hose uses high pressure (voltage) and higher flow rates (current). The result is that you get hit by a lot more water in a short time (power is energy divided by time, so a short burst of energy is more powerful than the same amount delivered over a longer period."